Like the families of 1.14 million people worldwide, our family has lost people we love to Covid-19. They are people who would not have died were it not for this deadly, hyper-contagious virus. We are in a global pandemic that is at least 15 times more fatal than seasonal influenza.
When people argue otherwise it puts more lives at risk; more families will mourn. Covid-19 conspiracies are dangerous. In New Zealand those conspiracies were driven by arguments against lockdowns and misinformation about the seriousness of the virus.
As our country was gearing up for an election, those fringe theories were mainstreamed and amplified by a sitting MP, Jami-Lee Ross. Ross had plummeted from grace this parliamentary term: a high-profile implosion and resignation from the centre-right National party, with allegations of bullying and harassment as well as facing fraud charges in the high court.
In a final desperate attempt at political relevance Ross hitched his wagon to the “plandemic” crowd. He led rallies and marches even during lockdown when the rest of us were doing everything to try to stop the spread of the virus. He posted misleading videos about forced vaccinations bound to whip up fear among often vulnerable people who were anxious and susceptible.
The more people who bought into the lies, the more ticks on the ballot paper and the greater Ross’s chances of returning to parliament – though that was never really going to happen.
The messages he was endorsing were reckless, wrong and confused. One march I saw Ross lead down a main street in Auckland had protesters waving conflicting signs: one said Covid-19 is a hoax alongside another which said Covid-19 is caused by 5G. Which is it?
I had largely ignored Ross since he came into our parliament press gallery office in July to tell us in hushed tones that he was signing up to this conspiratorial movement.
On election night I was in the studio co-presenting five hours of live coverage. We came off-air somewhere around midnight and I returned to the newsroom the next morning for our post-election special. That’s when I found out we had Ross on the show and I was interviewing him. His party had received 0.9% of the vote, nowhere near enough to return to parliament. The interview was legitimate, capping off an extraordinary and destructive political career but nonetheless I asked my producer to give him half the time we had allotted.
I have been asked about my strategy going into that interview which has since had a dizzying response – what my mentor and former bureau chief Gordon “Flash” McBride would call “feral” (he meant viral). There was no strategy. It was about giving this guy an exit interview and trying to understand why he made some of the choices he made.
And that’s what we did, though not entirely as planned.
Ross came into the studio for the interview, sat down and said to me: “You’re going to be nice to me aren’t you Tova? You have to be nice to losers.” I was familiar with this entitled, cloying tone from Ross.
No, I replied. I largely tore up the prepared questions.
‘I don’t want to hear any of that rubbish’: Tova O’Brien’s interview with Jami-Lee Ross – video
It was never about being nice or not nice, and I did genuinely want to know why Ross had aligned himself to the people espousing Covid conspiracies.
He admitted in the interview it was political ambition. He saw a growing movement online and, in my view, instead of using his privileged role and voice in parliament to help those people understand the facts and science, he chose to drive the hysteria and fear for another crack at power.
Variations of this story have been playing out all over the world. A global pandemic is unfortunately a petri dish for anxiety and misinformation, but it’s also brought the world together in a way I could never have foreseen in my lifetime. That’s probably why the interview resonated in the way it did. We are unified in wanting each other to be safe.
I was just doing my job that morning and the interview did not happen in a vacuum. Journalists all over the world have been calling out lies relating to Covid-19, especially when they’re adopted by powerful figures attempting to legitimise falsehoods.
They are the journalists who have inspired me my entire career – journalists who know that sometimes balanced reporting isn’t just about providing both sides of the story. It is simply about the facts – the truth.
Tova O’Brien is political editor of Newshub